Netflix review: 'The Half of It' gives a teen, LGBT twist to Cyrano story

Fred Hawson

Posted at May 09 2020 06:22 AM

A scene from 'The Half of It'

Ellie Chu was a mousy over-achieving high-school student in the remote town of Squahamish who made extra pocket money by ghost-writing papers for her classmates. One day, inarticulate football student Paul Munsky asked Ellie to help him write a love letter to his crush, fellow schoolmate Aster Flores.

However, as Ellie was helping Paul woo Aster with letters and text messages, she found herself getting attracted to Aster as well because of their shared interests in books and art. The longer their partnership went on, Paul was also starting to get confused as to who he really liked.

The story of Cyrano de Bergerac has been first been told by Edmond Rostand as a play in 1897. It has since been retold in several movies, like the classic 1950 film which won Jose Ferrer his Oscar for Best Actor or the 1990 French film where Gerard Depardieu got his Oscar nomination. There had been modern retellings like "Roxanne" (1987) or "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" (1996) and teen adaptations like "Let It Shine" (2012) and most recently "Sierra Burgess is a Loser" (2018). There had also been Filipino adaptations on film, like "Cyrano at Roxanne" (1973) starring Dolphy; and as a theater musical, like Pat Valera's "Mula sa Buwan" (2016).

"The Half of It" takes the story of Cyrano helping Christian woo Roxanne with poetry and transported it to a remote little American town where nerdy Ellie helped awkward Paul to win the heart of pretty Aster. The plot was apparent from the get go, so there wasn't really new at the start. However, the wooing approach focused on literature and art had been so eloquently rendered on the script.

A suspenseful tension was also successfully developed among the three teenagers in the love triangle, such that it was not exactly obvious how the story would go in the end.

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Chinese-American actress Leah Lewis may already be 23 years old in real life, but with her physical stature, she looked like she was only 15 years old here, with all the vulnerability of an insecure high school student. With her calm yet vibrant voice, Lewis's delivery of lines, especially the romantic ones, felt sincere and heartfelt. While her excellence in academics and her filial devotion to her father may be stereotypes, it was very rare and refreshing to see an Asian girl in a central role like Ellie.

Daniel Diemer had a goofy charm that made his Paul a pretty likable fellow, along with his taco sausages and fondness for Yakult. He may be clunky on the outside, but he did possess an affecting sensitivity, an irony which Diemer reflected well in his performance.

Alexxis Lemire had a serene beauty both wistful and intellectual, which made her Aster believable as the center of everyone's attention. Aster may have the world at her feet, but she clearly had a risk-taking streak in her.

Wolfgang Novogratz's Trig Carson was not that annoying as typical self-centered jocks in teen movies go.

A big part of the success of this film were the fresh performances of its central cast, which gave the familiar story a winsome homespun tweak. The gentle music, art direction, graphic animation, philosophical quotes and wholesome sense of humor also helped develop its coming-of-age story in the positive direction, despite a few questionable plot points.

Writer-director Alice Wu's approach for her Ellie's character was not hard-sell nor vulgar, and should not be off-putting for more conservative viewers wary of LGBT themes.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."